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The Design Way

The Design Way: Intentional Change in an Unpredictable World

Harold G. Nelson
Erik Stolterman
Copyright Date: 2012
Published by: MIT Press
Pages: 296
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  • Book Info
    The Design Way
    Book Description:

    Humans did not discover fire--they designed it. Design is not defined by software programs, blueprints, or font choice. When we create new things--technologies, organizations, processes, systems, environments, ways of thinking--we engage in design. With this expansive view of design as their premise, in The Design Way, Harold Nelson and Erik Stolterman make the case for design as its own culture of inquiry and action. They offer not a recipe for design practice or theorizing but a formulation of design culture's fundamental core of ideas. These ideas--which form "the design way"--are applicable to an infinite variety of design domains, from such traditional fields as architecture and graphic design to such nontraditional design areas as organizational, educational, interaction, and health care design. Nelson and Stolterman present design culture in terms of foundations (first principles), fundamentals (core concepts), and metaphysics, and then discuss these issues from both learner's and practitioner's perspectives. The text of this second edition is accompanied by new detailed images, "schemas" that visualize, conceptualize, and structure the authors' understanding of design inquiry. This text itself has been revised and expanded throughout, in part in response to reader feedback.

    eISBN: 978-0-262-30565-5
    Subjects: Art & Art History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface to the Second Edition
    (pp. ix-xii)
    Harold G. Nelson and Erik Stolterman
  4. Acknowledgments from First Edition
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
    Harold G. Nelson and Erik Stolterman
  5. Prelude
    (pp. 1-10)

    Genesis is ongoing. As human beings, we continuously create things that help reshape the reality and essence of the world as we know it. When we create new things—technologies, organizations, processes, environments, ways of thinking, or systems—we engage in design. To come up with an idea of what we think would be an ideal addition to the world, and to give real existence—form, structure, and shape—to that idea, is at the core of design as a human activity. This book is about that activity.

    Design is a natural and ancient human ability—the first tradition among...

    (pp. 11-24)

    Humans did not discover fire—they designed it. The wheel was not something our ancestors merely stumbled over in a stroke of good luck; it, too, was designed. The habit of labeling significant human achievements as “discoveries,” rather than “designs,” discloses a critical bias in our Western tradition whereby observation dominates imagination. Absent from the conflicting descriptions of Leonardo da Vinci, as either scientist or artist, is the missing insight into his essential nature as a designer. His practical, purpose-driven and integrative approach to the world—an archetypal designer’s approach—is primarily what made him so distinct in his own...


    • 1 The Ultimate Particular
      (pp. 27-40)

      As we noted earlier scientists tend to label ancient human designs, such as fire or the wheel, as “discoveries” because of their bias toward observation away from imagination. This penchant is an extension of the traditional approach to labeling scientific phenomena. When a researcher first becomes aware of something in the physical realm—something that has existed since time immemorial but has only now come to this researcher’s consciousness—he or she is said to have “discovered” that phenomenon. We accept that scientists have “discovered” gravity, evolution, entropy, and other seminal natural laws, through careful observation and critical evaluation—revealing...

    • 2 Service
      (pp. 41-56)

      Design, as defined in this book, is different from other traditions of inquiry and action in thatserviceis a defining element. Design is, by definition, a service relationship. All design activities are animated through dynamic relationships between those being served—clients, surrogate clients (those who act on behalf of clients), customers, and consumers or end users—and those in service, including the designers. Design ideally is about service on behalf of the other—not merely about changing someone’s behavior for their own good or convincing them to buy products and services. This is not always obvious when observing the...

    • 3 Systemics
      (pp. 57-92)

      Designers need to be able to see relations and to identify and protect the essential connections found in real life—they need to be systemic thinkers. They must be able to create essential relationships and critical connections in their designs and between their designs and the larger systems in which they are embedded—in other words, designers must be systemic in everything they do and make. If they aren’t, their way of working is fundamentally unsustainable. It doesn’t matter if designers use “green” materials and process, if they use the latest environment-friendly technology, or if they follow the latest “recipe”...

    • 4 The Whole
      (pp. 93-102)

      What do we mean when we say that a design constitutes a whole? What does it mean to design holistically? The term “whole” and derivative forms—like “holism” and “holistic”—are used in diverse ways. The term “whole” unfortunately is often taken to mean the entirety of existence, the complete or comprehensive collection of things, whether abstract or concrete—an all-inclusive perspective. The term “whole” is also understood—from the spiritual concept of oneness—that all things are merely glimpsed reflections of a unitary reality. A permutation of this is the understanding that all things are connected or interconnected systemically....


    • 5 Desiderata
      (pp. 105-118)

      Intentional change in our world can be initiated in basically two ways. People can take action to move away from situations they do not like, or they can take action to move toward what they believe to be more desirable situations. People are often forced to be reactive because a change suddenly occurs in their lives due to external causes. Sometimes they are aware of unpleasant or undesirable things that have occurred in the past and they take action to prevent or prepare against such changes if they were to recur. The need for change can arise for a number...

    • 6 Interpretation and Measurement
      (pp. 119-126)

      Every design situation is unique and complex, constituting an ultimate particular, which is unique and singular in and of itself, without commensurable qualities. To create and introduce new designs into the real world, designers must adequately know the world that already exists, at a level that makes meaningful design possible.

      In our modern society, we have at our disposal a large number of approaches to inquiry that have been developed solely for the purpose of creating such understandings. For some, the only way to reach a true understanding of reality is through the strict application of the scientific method. Others...

    • 7 Imagination and Communication
      (pp. 127-138)

      Design is about bringing things into the world that have not existed before. It is about creating thenot-yet-existing. One of the great design mysteries is where the image of the not-yet-existing comes from. In earlier chapters, we presented the concepts of desiderata and intention. We explored how our desiderata give direction and guidance to our intentions. Now, we find that there are processes that have to be in place for this to happen. As we discussed earlier, description and explanation do not prescribe what productive actions ought to be taken in any design situation. Scientific descriptions and explanations cannot...

    • 8 Judgment
      (pp. 139-158)

      Judgment making is essential to design. It does not replicate decision making but it is as necessary. The ability to make solid design judgments is often what distinguishes a stellar designer from a mediocre one. By judgment, we mean that which is at the heart of design wisdom—inquiry resulting in wise action—in all of its manifestations. Judgment is the means, and wise action—wisdom—is the outcome. In fact, design wisdom can be defined as good judgment, which enables right action aimed at appropriate change.

      Judgment is not a form of decision making as commonly understood. It is...

    • 9 Composing and Connecting
      (pp. 159-172)

      A design is always acompositional assembly—in other words, made up of unifying relationships and connections between elements. To design is to be creative and innovative; but more important, to design is to cause things, including people, to stand together as a unified whole—a compositional assembly. Creating such a system of unification means bringing parts, materials, functions, structures, processes, activities, and events together in such a way that they have an emergent presence or an appearance in the world. To design a compositional assembly is to use an integration of several strategies for unification. These strategies use rules...

    • 10 Craft and Material
      (pp. 173-180)

      Design is often dominated by creativity, its most glamorous trait. While the creativity it takes to imagine new possibilities and realities clearly is important, it’s easy to forget that there are other, more down-to-earth strategies associated with designing that are just as essential and influential. A new conceptual idea is not worth much if it is not made manifest in the world. All designs must be innovated—in other words, made real. Innovation is not the same as creativity, a conflation of terms that happens too often. In order to become innovations, designs must becraftedas concretized ormaterialized...


    • 11 The Evil of Design
      (pp. 183-190)

      Design is often paradoxical. Qualities that may appear to be opposites from a single vantage point are actually different dimensions of the same complex set of design relationships. As discussed earlier it is impossible to take in all views of a building at once—you must move around and through its architecture to see all sides of it. In fact, it is impossible to see the whole of anything in a design from just one station point or perspective. In design and designing, when one attribute is revealed as we conceptually move around it, another may suddenly be hidden from...

    • 12 The Splendor of Design
      (pp. 191-200)

      We live in a world of designed artifacts, some concrete and others abstract. Together with the natural world, these designs—whether things, systems, processes, or symbols—make up the whole of our reality. It is a reality populated by the beautiful and the ugly, the good and bad, and sometimes even the dangerous. Every day, we use—or struggle with—designs of every type of influence, shape, and size. Some of them we love, some we endure, others we hate, but most of them we never even notice. They just exist as a natural part of our lives.

      But sometimes...

    • 13 The Guarantor-of-Design (g.o.d.)
      (pp. 201-212)

      Design is an act of world creation. As such it can be experienced both as inspiring and intimidating. As a world creator, a designer can be overwhelmed by questions such as: Do I have the right to cause such significant change in the world? What is the right approach to take when making such changes? What kind of changes are good, or just, and for whom? As a designer, am I fully responsible and accountable for my designs and to whom? Can I be relieved of responsibility in some way? If not, how can I prepare for this responsibility and...


    • [V Introduction]
      (pp. 213-214)

      Now is a good time to think about how to bring some convergence to the divergent and immersive journey we have been on in this book—to begin to draw things together. Much of what has been introduced in this book, in addition to any questions and insights formed by the reader, will be revisited again, in greater detail, with greater relevance, during the actual processes of learning to become a designer and in practicing as a designer.

      There are two distinct ways in which things can be drawn together systemically. The first is through relations—namely, comparing similarities and...

    • 14 Becoming a Designer
      (pp. 215-238)

      No one begins his or her design careerbeinga designer—emerging as a full-fledged designer at birth. Instead, each of us engages in the processes ofbecomingsomeone in particular from the beginning of our existence. Tobecomea designer, it is necessary to engage in learning processes that lead to our development as skillful individuals—to master the requisite elements comprising adequate design competence. Becoming a designer also means maturing as a whole person within larger webs of life—natural, social, and cultural. It means moving from being a novice to becoming an expert—becoming an adeptroutine...

    • 15 Being a Designer
      (pp. 239-260)

      Designing is the means by which desired endsbecomereal. This is strikingly different from the purpose of scientific inquiry, which is focused on describing and explaining things that already exist—that are alreadybeingsomething. If someone is practicing as a designer they arebeingdesigners who are experts in the process of facilitating intentionalbecoming.

      In chapter 14 we discussed what becoming a designer requires. Now the question needs to be asked: How is it possible to know when someone is ready to begin practicing design? In the historical traditions of craft design, a novice or apprentice passed...

  11. The Way Forward
    (pp. 261-264)

    The Design Wayis focused on making the case for a design culture and a design-driven approach to the world. Design thinking and design activity need to be held in a cultural container—a social crucible—that provides perspective while nurturing, supporting, and protecting the work of designers and all those who benefit from design activities. This crucible—as a container for creative and innovative work—is not something that occurs naturally. It needs to be developed, continuously renewed, and eventually superseded. Within a healthy design culture, designers, their champions, clients, and other stakeholders accept their respective responsibilities for bringing...

  12. References
    (pp. 265-270)
  13. Index
    (pp. 271-282)